Among the 12 rivals entered against Lava Man in the $1-million Pacific Classic (gr. I) Aug. 19, several could undoubtedly be considered from barns that are taking a shot, perhaps because their horse has shown an affinity for Del Mar's Polytrack or because they believe the California champion is vulnerable. That's not the case for trainer John Shirreffs, who heads into the 1 1/4-mile event with a solid one-two punch.
In the 3-year-old Tiago, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Moss, Shirreffs has the only other North American grade I winner in the field beside Lava Man, the 5-2 morning line favorite. The bay son of Pleasant Tap, a half-brother to 2005 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Giacomo, won the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) in April in deep closing style. In Tiago's last start, the colt's only try to date on a synthetic surface, he captured the Swaps Breeders' Cup (gr. II) by 2 1/2 lengths on the Hollywood Park Cushion Track July 14.
Stan Fulton's A.P. Xcellent is still seeking his first stakes win. But the 4-year-old colt by A.P. Indy ran the race of his life in the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) June 30, setting the pace in the 10-furlong Cushion Track test and staging a furious stretch duel with Lava Man before losing by a nose in a terrific finish. The front-running A.P. Xcellent has won three of his five starts on a synthetic track, all at Hollywood, including a third-place finish in the Californian (gr. II) during a strong spring campaign.
A.P. Xcellent returned from the Gold Cup to run a fading fifth in the Cougar II Handicap at 11 furlongs on the Del Mar turf Aug. 1. Shirreffs promises A.P. Xcellent, who must contend with post 11 in the 13-horse field and is 8-1 on the morning line, will be winging on the front end again Aug. 19.
"Absolutely, it's the only way he knows how to run, so he's going to go," said the soft-spoken trainer. Victor Espinoza has ridden A.P. Xcellent to a couple of wins and takes over the mount from Mike Smith, who stays with Tiago.
Shirreffs believes Tiago can benefit from having A.P. Xcellent ensure an honest pace with Lava Man and a couple others lying close.
"Tiago can definitely come from off the pace," he said.
The lightly raced Tiago will be facing older horses for the first time in the Pacific Classic. Under the weight-for-age conditions Tiago, listed at 6-1 odds, will get five pounds off his Swaps' effort, carrying 117 -- seven fewer than his older foes.
In the Swaps, Tiago showed an ability to rate closer to the pace than he did earlier in his career. He made a big winning move along the rail, leaving Pacific Classic rival Albertus Maximus behind in second.
Between his victories in the Santa Anita Derby -- which came in just his fourth lifetime start -- and the Swaps, Tiago ran seventh in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and third in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). His seven-race career includes three victories and earnings of $815,270.
Shirreffs wasn't prepared to say whether either of his Pacific Classic candidates is doing particularly well on the new Del Mar surface this summer.
"How do you tell?" he asked. "I don't think you can tell."